On June 12, the world said goodbye to the legendary Ruby Dee. With a career in entertainment that spanned over seven decades, Dee was a formidable and respected activist who used her life to create change and open the eyes of the world. There were so many titles attached to her name: a loving wife to the just as legendary Ossie Davis (who preceded her in death), a strong voice in the Civil Rights Movement (she was close friends with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X), a Broadway star who paved the road for so many others (actress Audra McDonald thanked Dee as she accepted her record-breaking win at this month’s Tony Awards). The accolades are endless and the notoriety is massive. If her entire life could be symbolized by just one of her roles, it would be that of Mother Sister in 1989’s Do the Right Thing.
It is interesting how a character in a movie and the actress who portrayed her seem to have such similarities. In Do the Right Thing, we first meet Mother Sister as she sits at her window on a hot summer day. She sees the main character of the movie, Mookie (portrayed by Spike Lee), walking down the street and calls out to him.
“Now, Mookie; don’t work too hard today,” she says sweetly. “The man says it’s gonna be hot as the devil. I don’t want you fallin’ out from the heat. You hear me, son?”
“Yes, Mother Sister,” he replies. “I hear you.”
“Good,” she says back. “I’ll be watching you. Mother Sister always watches.”
From the offset, the line plays out as a nothing more than an old woman simply looking out for a young neighbor. As the movie goes on, however, Mother Sister’s warning heeds farther than that. You get the sense that she sees something far beyond the horizon of a blistering day. Dee definitely had those moments in her actual life. She once mentioned that she “used the arts as a part of [her] struggle” and it only seems fair to imagine that the reverse also held true. You can see the struggle inside of Mother Sister. The force is a quiet one, but it is definitely noticeable.
When Dee stepped out publicly, it was a rarity. In Do the Right Thing, we only see Mother Sister outside of her apartment three times. The second time, she interacts with another senior citizen who watches over the neighborhood, Da Mayor. Like Mother Sister, he is respected by everyone who lives there. But, he is also the town drunk. At first, he and Mother Sister do not get along. Da Mayor was played by Davis.
After Da Mayor saves the life of a young boy who nearly gets hit by a car, Mother Sister begins to let her guard down with him.
“That was a foolish thing you did today,” she states. “Foolish, but brave. That child owes you his life.”
“Well, I wasn’t trying to be a hero,” Da Mayor answers back. “I just saw what was happening and I reacted.”
Both Dee and Davis were heroes in many senses of the word, although neither would admit to the claim. The two of them were heavy forces not only in the Civil Rights Movement, but the testament of marriage. The two tied the knot in 1948. When Davis passed away in 2005, she never remarried. What they had done together, not only in protests, but their union, could and would never be replicated.
In Do the Right Thing, Mother Sister and Da Mayor become part of a heavy racial tension in their neighborhood that builds to a powerful climax. When it all comes to a head in the final minutes of the film, a pizzeria is burned down to the ground and a young man from the neighborhood is killed by a police officer. Mother Sister screams at the madness around her. As she cries out, Da Mayor runs to her and embraces her.
Once upon a time, Dee faced down a world that would seemingly never change. There were probably moments where all she could do is scream and cry, but she still went on with the help of her loving husband. As he holds her close, it is probably the truest glance we see of the connection between Dee and her character.
The last time we see Mother Sister in the movie, she sits next to Da Mayor, who is asleep in her apartment. As he wakes, she mentions that his actions from the night before nearly got him killed.
“Where did you sleep,” he asks her.
“I didn’t,” she answers.
As he goes to leave, she rises and stands beside him. In another interesting nod, it is only the second time we see her stand in the movie.
“I hope the block is still standing,” Da Mayor says.
“We’re still standing,” she replies.
Ruby Dee was the real Mother Sister; a person who stood when others were afraid to. When she sat down, it was only to take everything in. In her 91 years on this Earth, she was more than an actress or a Civil Rights fighter. She was the epitome of a “hood mother,” and her “hood” was the world. She fought a battle that put her in harm’s way for the power of change. Thank you for everything, Mother Sister.
Opinion by Jonathan Brown